Category Archives: beekeeping

saving the bees : an adrenaline filled tale

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Luckily, since I last wrote, I realized that not all is lost with the bees. After a frantic email out to our group of Sonoma Valley beekeepers, a phone call, a visit and some very wise emails we concluded that my bees got too cold over winter. That what I was looking at was not chalk brood but chilled pupae. The one hive with the queen should be good to go with a little care. The queenless one…well that was a conundrum. My bees were now too old to properly rear a queen (newborn bees are the ones who become nurse bees and take care of the brood). Even if I gave them a queen, there still wouldn’t be any nurse bees to take care of the future eggs. The situation seemed dire.
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Not two days after my queenless discovery I received an email from our group facilitator that she and two other women were going to meet to split a hive. If I came, I could take some frames of brood and nurse bees to combine with my older queenless foragers so that they could raise their own queen. Once a hive detects that a hive is queenless (that only takes an hour) they will take a good looking egg and develop it into a queen. Now this process takes some time, 16 days until she hatches, plus another week or more until she is mated and ready to lay eggs. Since I had to go to the bee store for supplies yesterday I asked if they happened to have any extra queens. They did! This would save the hive about three weeks worth of time. So with my queen in a little cage and a small box of nurse bees to keep her happy we headed home.
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Today I headed up to Glen Ellen to this amazing property (where all of these pictures were taken) to meet these ladies to do a hive split. Bee people, I have found, are really great, interesting people. The kind of people that you enjoy being with. And today was no exception. After a solid two hours of hive work we split the two tall hives to prevent them from swarming. One split went to me, one to the owner, Lisa. Afterwards we were all beat, it was hot today. Working in a hive is intense. You’re usually hot, you lose a ton of water wearing long sleeved shirts and pants, your adrenaline is rushing a bit, and you are completely ‘in the moment’. I tend to loose all sense of time. We regrouped around this magnificent hand built table with snacks and cucumber water and retold what we had learned.
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I left feeling worn out but exuberant. I put the bee box in my van and headed back home. Right away I noticed a few stray bees flying around so I stopped to let them out. Then a few more miles down the road I found a LOT more bees flying around and realized I was going to have a problem on my hands. I stopped at the nearest turn out and brainstormed…the box lid wasn’t fitting on tightly enough. I pulled the box out and put it in the shade of a tree. If I could take off the lid, put my shirt over the top of the box and then put the lid back on, I would be in business. Which is right about when I realized that I had left all my bee gear back at Lisa’s house. I stupidly tried my trick anyway. The moment I took that lid off, I had a box full of angry bees on my hands. I threw my shirt over the box to contain most of them and was immediately swarmed and stung. I walked far away, took a deep breath, got in my car and with one bar left on my cell phone, made an SOS call to Lisa. She not only drove to meet me and brought my veil and gloves, but put the lid on the box for me and wrapped it up tight in a blanket.
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Once I got home I was able to combine the new bees with the old (using the newspaper sprayed with mint simple syrup trick) and placed the queen in with the new bees. I put the lid on tight, walked away and fell into a useless heap on the couch. Oy! I’m not used to all this drama. There are a lot of routine-filled and ordinary days in my life as a mother of 3 little ones. Beekeeping takes me out of my comfort zone down an avenue completely unrelated to mothering and I do so enjoy it!

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bees & flowers :: successes & failures

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It’s that time of year where the flowers are coming inside. Our beautiful new windows (such a treat to have new windows!) are getting opened everyday to enjoy spring breezes. Slowly the line between indoors and outdoors is getting blurred.

It was a welcome side indeed to walk into a house filled with flowers on a day like today, when upon complete inspection of my two hives, I realized both are in a sad state of decline. One is queenless, has wax moths and appears to have sent out a well populated swarm. The other, also in low population, has a queen but appears to have a fair amount of dead, almost mature larvae still in their cell (chalkbrood possibly?). Neither hive looked good. It was supposed to be a good day with only my oldest son at home. We went out to brunch and then were to have a happy, learning filled hive inspection together. We learned, for sure, but having mama walk back into the house with a heavy heart and tears in her eyes was not part of the plan.

I’ve been told that this happens. Colonies die. To not give up. But it is hard not to feel incredibly guilty. What was I thinking in believing I could keep tens of thousands of bees happy when I have such little time to give them? And now I have to find time despite foreseeing a busy weekend. Do I combine them? Do I get a new queen? Do I call it all a loss? Oy!

The good news is that the garden is booming along and I’ve learned a few new tricks that I’m looking forward to sharing with you. In a rare instance, plants that I thought I had killed over the winter are making a strong comeback and the new plants I got this year are growing just great. (Usually I always kill a few new plants.) Maybe I should keep my focus on growing plants and not an apiary.

…at least there are flowers…

 

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The Birds & The Bees

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Just two short weeks ago I was certain without a doubt that I had lost one of my beehives. They underwent a pretty hard period of robbing in late fall. Robbing, for those even newer to beekeeping than myself, is when other bees or in this case, yellow jackets, enter the hive to steal honey and kill the defending bees. Between the robbing and the ants that seemed to be making their home in that battered hive, I feared the worse. There was minimal activity on the monitoring board (a white board at the bottom of the hive you can pull out to view debris that has fallen – a way of seeing how active the bees are and where they are in the hive) and minimal activity at the entrance of the hive.

But with this warm sunny weather we’ve had that hive has come alive with activity. Bees are coming back with mustard, eucalyptus, manzanita, rosemary and all sorts of other pollens and nectars. Seeing that there is hope yet made me feel happy indeed.
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We’ve been disappointed in our egg production the past couple of years, so we’ve decided to bolster our chicken count. Scott went to the wood pile and crafted together a brooding box on Saturday morning and by evening we had six new chicks to keep us entertained. Four Rhode Island Reds and two Gold Sexlinks, both high egg producers.
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We’ve backed away from getting chickens that lay exotic eggs. Our cookoo maran chickens didn’t lay the dark chocolate brown eggs that was advertised, instead laying light brown eggs. And our Americanas? Well, they do lay blue eggs, but they’ve always looked like this below. Not so appetizing.
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Here’s to hoping that come summer we’ll be blessed with ample amounts of honey and eggs.

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Harvesting Calm Amongst our Chaos & Body Care Recipes in the Works

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The days around here have been non-stop the past two weeks. The Littlest got sick, then the Biggest, followed by the Middle one. The Middle one had a birthday, which he was sick for, the next day the Biggest broke his toe at TaeKwonDo practice. After a full afternoon at the Doctors getting x-rays and waiting for hours with a potty-training, non-napping two year old alongside, we were told there is nothing you can do about a broken toe. So we went home. The next morning I took the Middle one back to the Doctor for an eye exam to find he needs glasses. ‘Oh good!’ I said excitedly, ‘We’ll be twins now!’ Eager to pick out some adorable little boy glasses we headed to the kids glasses display where the Littlest had a potty training accident right there on the carpet and then immediately spilled her apple juice that the seemingly well intentioned nurse gave her. What followed was a classic body twisting tantrum of epic proportions. We couldn’t pick out frames fast enough and get out of there!
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Through the chaos, we’ve been able to gather together the past two weekends as a family for harvesting walnuts. It’s a pretty nice few moments, after a whirlwind week, to work together under shady trees finding and hulling walnuts. Walnuts usually lead to picking tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers, squash, one thing leads to the next.
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And of course a bit more honey. These couple frames of honey tastes so much different from the last. It’s strong in flavor and we are in debate about whether we like the taste at all. What have they been feasting on the past couple of weeks?
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(Honey laden beeswax for the girls to clean off and lavender stalks for the bees to perch on for drinking water. All in my new top feeder)

Luckily the days have slowed down back to their normal pace. The toe is almost back to normal, the glasses turned out to be cute as a bug on him and the Littlest one is back to napping. The potty training is going pretty well.

I’ve gotten back to work on some more body care recipes I can’t wait to share with you. I’m hoping to develop five solid recipes into a little booklet with labels to print. Hopefully it will be perfect for Holiday present making. How does that sound? I have a new lip balm recipe that only calls for 3 ingredients and I’m seriously addicted to! It’s really incredible. I’m putting the finishing touches on a face scrub that has my skin feeling like silk and I figured out how to turn my trusty Beeswax Lotion recipe into a body butter that goes on just like, well, butter. And there is a little something for the men in our lives I’m trying to perfect too. I’m excited about all of them. I’ll keep you updated!

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Putting Food Up

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Putting food up is a lot of work. These pears along with a couple more bags sat in the kitchen a week until I summoned the courage to sit and cut them all, lug out the heavier than heck cider press, grind them, press them and then make pear butter from the pressings.
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Meanwhile Scott’s been slowly plugging away at making marinaras with the tomatoes. 5 quarts are in the pantry, only 19 more to make! A few years ago we made it a goal to put 24 quarts up, which would give us a spaghetti dinner every other week or so until the next tomato season. Just thinking about 19 more makes me want to take a nap. It’s so worth it though when you taste it. Home canned marinara is so much more delicious than anything you can buy. We upped our canning ability this year by investing in a pressure canner. Our first pressure canned experiment was salsa.
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The corn was all harvested, but that’s easy to put up. Just cut it off the cob and into ziplocks for the freezer. I think this year our harvest should carry us most of the way through the winter.
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I had to do a little surgery in one of my hives last week. Somehow, somewhere along the line, someone left a one inch gap between frames in the bottom box and the ladies filled that space up with comb. I spent all summer fretting over having to deal with it. At a recent beekeeping get together a wiser beekeeper encouraged me to just get in and take care of business and I did. Not only did the lovely ladies create an easy to pop out full wall of comb between the frames, but it was almost entirely empty of brood. Phew!
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Last weekend my younger son and I went to a bee harvesting event where we helped harvest honey from three different colonies, all in different locations. We started with the honey from the Sonoma Garden Park. See the color above?
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Well, we ended with honey from Glen Ellen, the next town north, just a few miles up the road for those not familiar with the area. Look how much darker it is! It’s a nice group of beekeepers we have here in Sonoma. Such interesting people. It was a good day.

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A Peek at The National Heirloom Expo

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What a great time we had at The Nation Heirloom Expo on Thursday! As their website says, “The National Heirloom Exposition is a not-for-profit event centered around the pure food movement, heirloom vegetables, and anti-GMO activism.”  We really didn’t know what to expect, but we walked into this hall first and were blown away at how much there was to look at and how inspiring it would be.
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It was so hard to not pick one of these apples up and take a bite! We might have to join the California Rare Fruit Growers so we can get access to some of the more rare apples trees.

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This picture doesn’t do this tower justice, this was about a 10 foot tower of winter squash!
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13oo lb pumpkins!
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Mindblowingly beautiful beehives by Gaia’s Bees.
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Must buy some goldenrod for the bees!
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I regret not buying one of these self watering, hand made terracotta seed trays. Anne, the designer and maker said they’d have them for sale on their website soon. I have a feeling they’ll be selling like hotcakes, they are so beautiful!
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This birthday girl, in all her rainbow regalia, caught the eye of the Gettles and she ended up having a little photo session with Sasha with a Baker Creek photographer. Very cute!
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Great music to listen to at lunchtime by Poor Old Shine.
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Other highlights:

: : Running into our neighbor and her aunt

: :  Then running into our uncle and his partner Jane, who runs a farm & CSA in the foothills

: : The amazing vendor hall that I could have spent another hour in had I not had a tired two year old on my hands

: : But I did manage to buy a hand thrown serving bowl and pitcher

: : Great food was served there. We had a delicious BLT and strawberry/rhubarb pie for dessert

: : Talking to Rebecca Burgess and telling her how she inspired me on my naturally dyed fair isle sweater

: : Looking forward to next year when hopefully I can hear some speakers as well!

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Stolen Sweetness – Taking honey from the hive

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I don’t know what got into me last week, but one day I opened up the cover of the hive to see if one of my colonies had touched the new super I put on it two weeks ago. When I saw a framed of capped honey I got the wild idea to pull a couple of frames for harvest. Walking out to the hives with my boys I usually am excited to see what’s going on, but the idea that I was going to pull frames gave me butterflies. So much so that when I opened the hive and pulled the first frame of honey (which is so much heavier that a brood frame), I dropped it! In case you were wondering how to anger a large pack of bees, that’s exactly how to do it. I got stung through my pants, just once, but I deserved it.

I was able to pull two other frames out without harm to myself or my bees. With the help of my very helpful (and well suited up) five year old and a big feather as a bee brush, we got those two frames in a trash bag, bee free, and into the kitchen. Now came the problem of what to do with the frames. Ideally I’ve learned you only want to cut off the cappings so that you can return the empty comb back to you hive. But to get the honey out that way you need an extractor, which I didn’t have so I cut all the comb off, down to the foundation, using a small serrated knife.
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I held this over a sieve fit into a mixing bowl.
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I was really curious as to how much honey I would get from one frame. Typically I’ve seen honey yields listed in pounds, but being a visual person that never held much value for me. Well now I know that one medium super frame of honey fits into a quart canning jar with just a little extra to save for tea & toast.
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We’ve been preserving vegetables and fruit for 10 years now, but the feeling of putting two full quart jars of honey into our pantry was immensely satisfying in a different way.

Now that I’ve gotten a taste, I’m curious to find if I can steal some more sweetness. To those beekeepers out there, how much honey do you recommend leaving a first year hive? Both of my hives now have about two full medium supers each and are still bringing it in. Should I leave it all to them or will leaving them with one full box be enough?

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A Look Inside the Hives

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The bees have been busy lately! Though I’m new to bee talk, it seems that maybe there has been a ‘nectar flow’ going on the past two weeks around these parts. I thought I’d share a little look inside.

I still haven’t gotten stung (knock on wood!). I have been doing my inspections without gloves as a book I read said it’s better to work the frames without gloves. So far so good.
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A question for you beekeepers out there, does the picture just above these words look like capped drone cells? Whilst the one above that look like worker brood? Only after I closed this hive up did I realize there weren’t many drones in this colony and then after reviewing the pictures it looked to me like the above picture might be a patch of drone brood. This is all from the smaller hive.

The larger hive has it’s top super completely full of honey! I’m going to have to add another in a few days.
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This bush has helped with this assumed nectar flow, I believe. Every time I walk past it, it is humming with the sound of happy foraging bees.

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Where the Wild Bees Are: catching a swarm

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Sunday night right before dinner the phone rang. It was my neighbor Michelle, ‘I was looking out my kitchen window and you have a swarm in one of your walnut trees!’ No way! She had just picked up her package of bees the day prior. Knowing that her aspirations were to capture a wild swarm for a second hive (as they seem to be common on this street, our other neighbor had two swarms taken from his property two weeks ago), I said, ‘Well come get them!’

As soon as I hung up the phone, I hollered out a family wide announcement of  ‘Put your shoes back on! We’re going back outside!’ Just to be sure we checked on our bees first, yep, still safely in their hives. It wasn’t ours that had made a run for it.
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Then we walked across the property to check out this swarm. Even with my miniscule, newly acquired bee knowledge, I know that wild swarms are quite docile. Bees, while searching for a new home are all too preoccupied with their house hunting to bother stinging anyone, so I got up close to check them out. Amazing, isn’t it? Somewhere in the middle is a queen. How does she not get crushed? How does she breath in there?
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Whilst we were in the middle of putting the three kids to bed, Michelle came over fully suited up and calmly dropped that buzzing ball of bees into a box and carried it home. Just like that. Pretty remarkable, isn’t she?
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Now they live in their temporary box with two frames of foundation to keep them occupied until she can make the run out to Beekind to pick up another hive box.
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Looking at the scenery around her bee yard, I think those wild bees, with the help of ‘realtor’ Michelle have found themselves a prime piece of real estate!

I am quite anxious to see how my two colonies of Italians, her ‘Local Survivor Stock’ colony, and her wild colony will all compare. Will any one be stronger than the other? Will their honey taste differently? Only time will tell.

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It’s all the buzz around here

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Saturday afternoon I arrived at this welcoming place, above, Beekind in Sebastapol, to pick up the bees. I have had this date on the calendar for months now. Beekeeping is something I’ve wanted to do for years now but between city ordinances (which have since been relaxed), and having a baby and knowing we were going to move, I had to wait. Now that we are on this property and I have a few beekeeping friends I knew this was as good a time as any. Last August I picked up a copy of Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees to give me a good introduction into what I was getting into.
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(the boys were glued to the two bee boxes!)

When we first moved in our generous neighbor gave us an incredible basket of edible goodies and one of them was a canning jar full of honey. When we finally met in person we asked her if she kept bees and she casually replied that she caught a wild swarm in her backyard and this was their honey. Holy Cow! Incredible! Turns out she wanted to learn a little more and start a traditional hive this year too, so together we ventured out to Beekind a few weeks ago to take on of their hands on hive installation and inspection classes. Taking that class, for me, was invaluable. And knowing that there was someone over the fence with whom I could shout out to for moral bee support is also invaluable.
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Now, despite that I’ve read a book and taken a class, I am still a bumbling newbie in all of this, so when it came time to install the packages all sorts of little stumbling blocks came up such as. ‘Oh wait, the boxes are nailed together, what do we do about that?’ After finding that a hammer wasn’t going to pull out those tack strips easily we resort to a saw.
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A lot of deliberation, debating and worry went into the location of the hives. We finally decided upon a part of the yard that gets little foot traffic, has a high hedge to protect from the wind and is slightly overhung by a tree to give a little afternoon shade.
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What’s been great about the process is seeing how excited the boys are about it all. Our youngest son is well known to be a bee petter and the first question he had for the lady when we picked up the bees was, ‘can I hold one?’ But our oldest, as you can see above, wants to be right into it, picking things up, moving things around. He told me the other day, ‘Let’s go check on them, I just can’t resist the bees!’ I’m looking forward to them learning along with me.
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Installing the bees was a little heart racing but I didn’t get stung and all in all, it went smoothly. Inside those larger boxes of bees is a small box that the queen comes in. You can see me above brushing bees off of her with some grass. There is a cork in that box that you take out and replace with a mini-marshmallow. You then rubberband her to a frame and the workers eat their way into her.
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At the end of the day I got them all buttoned up and was quite proud and excited about our new venture. Yesterday I had to go back in and take out the bee boxes and reduce the hive down to one box (I had to start with two boxes since I’m using shallows), which went mostly easily, except when I came back a little later and found that one hive was swarming the removed bee package box…apparently the queen was attached to that. Sigh. So back the package box went into the hive. Then I also found that the ants (I really do hate ants!)  had broken through my cinammon border and had infested the syrup of the other hive. Sigh. So more cinammon was applied and today I need to create little oil moat around the bases.

The good news is that when I went into the hives to rearrange things yesterday I saw that one hive was already drawing out it’s honeycomb and filling it with the syrup, so with any luck and if I can keep the queen in the hives, we’ll have honey this summer!

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